Entering the eye of the storm

Overcoming Claustrophobia and other conditions through yoga

1) Introduction

In a previous article titled "Accessing deep states of the mind through Prayatna and Shaitilya (Effort and Relaxation)", the purport of the 2nd of the 3 sutras on asanas, from the yoga sutras, was discussed. Patanjali says that in order to experience states of infinite bliss (anantha samapatthi), one needs to put in the right effort (Pra Yatna). This means that one can access deeper states of relaxation by increased and correct effort than through flippant effort. In this article I would like to discuss some implications of this in asana practice and how learning to relax the body in difficult contortions can help overcome fears like claustrophobia.

2) Perspective on advanced asanas

There is a misconception that doing more difficult asanas gives greater rewards. The Hatha yoga pradipika says that there are 8.4 million asanas, as many as the number of species of living beings, and the reason there are so many is that it may suit the constitutional needs of all individuals. This means that a young and flexible person needs to do more advanced asanas to balance effort and relaxation and get the benefit described by Patanjali earlier in section 1, as compared to an older and less flexible person. The term "advanced" is therefore quite relative. While it is a lot of fun to do poses that one thought were difficult, and gain a sense of satisfaction from the accomplishment, suffering through poses because it is a part of a sequence of asanas (such as those in the ashtanga vinyasa system), and therefore should not be skipped for fear of displeasing the teacher, does not constitute right effort. Everyone has a point beyond which the effort is counterproductive. (See "Eustress and Distress of asana practice"). Asanas schools like power yoga, Bikram yoga (now often called Hot yoga) and ashtanga yoga have received much flak for pushing people beyond their limits, resulting in injury.

Some teachers think that this kind of harsh practice has scriptural sanction because it constitutes austerity. Such teachers lack understanding of yogic scriptures. In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavan Krishna tells Arjuna that those who subject their bodies to such harsh austerities, not only torture their bodies, but also him, who resides in every being.

अशास्त्रविहितं घोरं तप्यन्ते ये तपो जनाः ।

दम्भाहङ्कारसंयुक्ताः कामरागबलान्विताः ॥ १७-५॥

कर्षयन्तः शरीरस्थं भूतग्राममचेतसः ।

मां चैवान्तःशरीरस्थं तान्विद्ध्यासुरनिश्चयान् ॥ १७-६॥

Those men who practise terrible austerities, not enjoined by the scriptures, given to hypocrisy and egoism, impelled by the force of lust and attachment . . .

Senselessly torturing all the elements in the body, and Me also who dwells within the body — you may know these to be of demoniacal resolves.

3) Entering the eye of the storm

With the groundwork laid for understanding the purpose of "advanced" asanas, we will look at how some asanas train the body to relax and breathe normally in difficult and seemingly uncomfortable contortions.

When one enters an MRI machine, or when one crawls in the narrow space of an attic or the crawl space beneath the house, the body naturally tenses and the breathing becomes shallow. Doing asanas, that are at first uncomfortable, is also similar. The body tenses and the breathing stops or becomes shallow. The approach in these situations is not to rush through the pose but create space or comfort (the word Sukham means comfortable space) and breathe normally. Slowly, one would be able to relax in these poses even if one is not able to get to the final pose. This is more important than reaching the final pose. Breathing normally and relaxing the body creates more space to twist or bend, while being tense creates the opposite effect.

Sometimes people experience a sudden release of tension and profound relaxation when going through a difficult pose. This can happen, for example, when a bandha is engagaed, such as when the knees press on to the ears in karna pidasana (below) thereby releasing the neck and shoulders. This deep relaxation from a state of less ease is what Patanjali refers to in section 1. It is often likened to entering the eye of a storm. In a storm the eye wall is the area where the winds are strongest. Once it is crossed, there is stillness as seen in this video at 3:15.

The eye of the storm where the winds are calm while the eye wall has the strongest winds

4) Illustrative asansas

We will use the videos below containing three asanas to demonstrate the release of tension into a deep state of relaxation -

Pashasana, a side twist,

Karna Pidasana, an intense squeeze and forward bend, and

Dropping back from standing into Urdhva Dhanurasna, a deep back bend.

Pashasana with voice and music.mp4

References for Urdhva Dhanurasana

1) The psychology of backbends

2) Lessons from Kapotasana

5) Conclusion

We looked at some of the implications of yoga sutra 2.47 on putting in the appropriate effort to reach deeper states of relaxation. We also looked at the fine line between the right effort and wrong effort and how the Bhagavan Krishna uses strong language to admonish this kind of wrong effort which people misbelieve to be austerity. We looked at how relaxing the body in uncomfortable poses, increases space and allow us to twist or bend more. We likened the sudden sense of relaxation in some poses and opening up of space to entering the eye of a storm. We also saw three videos on three poses to illustrate this deep relaxation in seemingly difficult poses.